Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sony DSC-RX100 M2 Review

The great thing about iteration is that it has a tendency to repeat itself. The original RX100 might have ended up as a well-regarded one-time offering, but with the 2013 refresh, Sony seems poised to carry the big camera in a small body concept forward into the future. This is the best fixed-lens compact camera on the market, and as is expected, Sony has priced it that way. The RX100 MII not only costs more than all other compacts, it costs more than its APS-C NEX-3 and NEX-5 siblings. Does it live up to it's price tag?

Body and Design

From across the room, you would be hard pressed to pick out the RX-100 M2 from the original RX-100 (with the obvious exception of the added hotshoe), but up close the thicker body becomes apparent. The RX-100 was (and remains) a truly tiny camera for its sensor size, and feels like it's on the verge of being a matchbox camera. The added thickness that the flip-out LCD display has brought on is not overwhelming, but the new camera does feel a bit more like a middle-weight compact than an overgrown matchbox. However familiarity is good; if the tactile user experience hasn't changed, at least the control interface is consistent between generations as well. The fact that the controls haven't changed appreciably is a reflection on the design maturity of this line of cameras. However, this also means that some of the downsides of the first RX100 carry over, including what might be considered smallish buttons for some. However, if you can get past the lack of padding material on the front of the camera, the thumb rest is generous enough to not make holding the camera a chore. 

Though the camera is now a bit chunkier, it's still some thing that will slip into a shirt pocket, something that no mirrorless camera does at the moment. The build quality is simple and austere, and has a solid feel to it when you pick it up. If you shake the camera, there isn't any rattling or loose panels to be found.

Image Quality

Sony claims an increase of 40% in light gathering, which sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that this correlates to just under 1/2 stop's worth of ISO power. For any sensor less than m4/3 size, this is more or less a generation's jump in image quality. Just as a reminder, backside illumination (BSI) means that the sensor is constructed with the wiring interconnects below the light gathering substrate (convention is with the wiring above the substrate). Though there are some design implications, BSI generally allows for a clearer path from the microlenses into the photodiode, meaning more light is gathered, and from a greater angle as well. BSI offers the biggest improvements with small, tightly packed sensors where the wiring interconnects take up proportionally more of the sensor's surface area. At 20mp on a 1/1" sized sensor, the RX100 II has photosites 2.4µm in diameter. This is extremely small; by comparison, the photosites in an iPhone are 1.4 µm. Here is how the image noise develops over the ISO range. (Click to see full size):

ISO 100

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600
ISO 3200

ISO 6400

On the whole, the RX100II isn't all that crisp if you zoom into 100%, but the noise is well controlled. Though there is quite a bit of detail loss from ISO 1600 and up, the texture of the image is still relatively smooth. In fact, it's a bit too smooth if you prefer a more nature look. For the most part, ISO 800 is the highest that you can use this camera in a care-free manner; thereafter, you will have to keep post processing in mind. However, downsized to a more reasonable 12mp or so, you could use ISO 1600 images without suffering too much loss in edge acuity.

The lens on the RX100 and the RX100 II is a relatively simple design by modern standards, having only four optical elements. It's a fast f/1.8 at the wide end, but closes down to f/4.9 at the long end. Overall, the lens does its job in the center of the frame, but there does seem to be some fall off in corner performance. Here's a close-up scene with the RX 100 II compared to the Canon G16 with both at widest zoom and f/1.8.

Sony RX 100 II - ISO 100, f/1.8

Canon G16 - ISO 100, f/1.8
The first thing that you notice is that the Sony is more heavy-handed on the contrast and saturation than the Canon. If anything, the Canon white balance and overall rendition is more accurate. At f/1.8 and its widest zoom, the Sony isn't very consistent across the frame, as the vignetting is quite pronounced. Even though the Canon is set to the same lens settings, it's smaller sensor isn't taxing its lens as much as the Sony is. Though the Sony 1" sensor is larger than that in the G16, the amount of background blur seen on the far wall is only mildly more. Were you to zoom in to 100% on both images, it's not that the Sony produces more detail than the Canon because it has more megapixels, it's that it's capable of producing a larger image at the same image quality level. Paradoxically, G16 images can appear sharper than those from the RX 100 II because of the smaller sensor and how that increases the amount of usable depth of field at a given aperture over the camera with the larger sensor

Looking at how the bokeh and depth of field develop on the RX100 II.... Long story short: don't expect loads of background defocusing unless you are shooting at something very close up, as such:






Peak sharpest occurs at f/4; f/2.8 is not too shabby, but going the extra stop virtually eliminates the visible appearance of spherical and coma aberration, as well as vignetting. Diffraction limitation begins at f/8 and is visually apparent at f/11. In this regards, the RX100 II is more like a compact than it is a mirrorless camera, as the workable aperture range is on the narrow side.


If there's one great thing about the RX100 M2, it's that it makes the RX100 look cheap. Sony is asking for an eye-watering  $799 CDN for the new camera, while the original now sells for $649 CDN. In my experience, the difference in image quality and flip-out LCD are not worth the price difference. First of all, the articulated LCD is a luxury; though awkward in some situations, you can get by without one if you are willing to shoot stoop/bend/contort or take a few extra safety shots. The improved ISO quality is nice and makes this camera once again top dog among compacts, but getting one over the original RX100 doesn't give you that much more bang for the buck. It goes without saying that there are some decent m4/3 cameras and entry level DSLR's at this price as well, though none are as small and portable.

The price for he RX100 M2 makes it a difficult sell as a second camera, but if you are moving up from an older compact or a smartphone, it's a reasonable proposition if you never picture yourself using a DSLR. You would be sacrificing some image quality and system flexibility by forgoing an interchangeable lens camera, but at the level of image quality the RX cameras give, the RX100 M2 would likely be used for a good number of years. Once again, the 2013 version of the RX100 is a great camera, but is also a bit of a reminder of the Sony Corporation that is willing to produce a the best possible product simply because they can.

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